Practice for Life: Making Decisions in College begins with the observation that college doesn’t just start one day during orientation week and then end ceremonially some years later. Instead, argue authors Lee Cuba, Nancy Jennings, Suzanne Lovett, and Joseph Swingle, college is “a liminal space and place in which students make lots of decisions that serve as practice for the many more they will make as older adults.” The case they make for the enduring value of liberal education is novel and unconventional, but—as they acknowledge early on—their book enters a not-uncrowded space. So why read yet another book on higher education? In the brief excerpt below, they address the question head-on.
Over the past twenty years, many thoughtful, insightful, and field-changing books have been published on virtually every aspect of the college experience. While we have learned much from these and use them throughout to contextualize our own analysis, we believe that our research makes a number of unique contributions to the field of higher education that will interest parents, students, faculty, administrators, and researchers. Our analysis is based on narratives of the student experience that we constructed from repeated interviews with a diverse group of over 200 students who thrived, struggled, or stalled at various points during their college years. Because we interviewed students every semester while they were in college, we were able to gather enormously rich and detailed information about student decision-making. Why did you choose this course, this major, this advisor? Why did you choose to live with these friends, join these organizations, or study abroad? What is most on your mind as you start the school year? And because we asked these questions (and many others) in “real time,” we believe that the answers students gave constitute a valid account of their college experience.
Although you will hear from over one hundred students in this book, you will get to know a much smaller number—around twenty—fairly well. The longer narratives we have written about this group demonstrate that students find engaging academic experiences, advisors, friends, balance, or a sense of home in different places and via different routes. They also demonstrate that students’ academic engagement, friendships, advisor relationships, experience of time and balance, or sense of home often change over time. We chose some of these students because their narratives were similar to those of many of their peers. We chose others because they were in many respects outliers. Regardless of their typical or atypical nature, each of these students’ college experiences offers something instructive about the process of becoming liberally educated.
Very few books about the college experience are based on research that follows students throughout their time in college (or beyond) using a combination of qualitative and quantitative methods. Studies by Catharine Beyer and her colleagues at the University of Washington (Inside the Undergraduate Experience) and by Daniel Chambliss and Christopher Takacs at Hamilton College (How College Works) are exceptions. Research at both schools provided valuable insights into how students learn and acquire important skills, such as writing and quantitative reasoning, although they offer different views as to whether academic departments or individual students should be the focus of efforts to assess student learning. We extend these earlier studies by addressing additional issues that are important to college students, such as how their experience of time or academic engagement changes during college. We also conducted our research at seven colleges, rather than at a single institution, bolstering our confidence that we have identified issues that are familiar to many college students.
Other books that rely on qualitative data, such as Richard Light’s Making the Most of College and Ken Bain’s What the Best College Students Do offer important advice about student success in college, and our research affirms many of their findings about how students can make decisions that will significantly and positively influence their college education. Bain’s book and others like it start with successful students and move backward: What did these students do early on that contributed to later life success? In contrast, we chronicle the array of small and large academic and social decisions that students made and identify strategies that either helped or hindered their ability to navigate college. By looking at what students do before the verdict is in, we direct attention to what worked and didn’t work for both successful and not-so-successful students. In addition, our analysis of semester-to-semester, year-to-year, interview data augments and extends ethnographies that have focused only on the first year of college.
Many critics of higher education have attracted attention because they claim that students are shortchanged, aren’t learning all that much in college, and spend far more time socializing than studying. For example, in Aspiring Adults Adrift, Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa concluded that college students, on average, show limited improvement in critical thinking, complex reasoning, and written communication, especially those who attended “less selective institutions.” Students at “more selective institutions,” in contrast, demonstrated gains in critical thinking which they attributed, in part, to the more “academic orientation” of these schools, narrowly defined as the length of writing and reading assignments, the number of times students met with a faculty member outside of class in a semester, and the number of hours spent studying in a week. Unlike the standardized learning assessments and decontextualized surveys that provided the foundation for Arum and Roksa’s analysis, our repeated, in-depth interviews with students allow us to document the achievement of a more expansive set of college outcomes—such as the development of a “path to purpose” as William Damon puts it—as well as a more expansive set of factors that promote learning and engagement.
Finally, a number of recent books, many of which focus exclusively on liberal arts colleges, inform our discussion of the philosophical origins and debates about the purpose and usefulness of liberal education. Some make claims for the historical importance and present-day value of liberal education, while others argue that the residential liberal arts college model is no longer sustainable. Still others believe that a college degree is, for many, simply not worth what it costs. Although we see our book as aligned with those who affirm the liberal arts, none of these offers a systematic, empirical analysis of how college creates self-motivated, inquisitive lifelong learners. We claim that becoming liberally educated is a messy, complicated, ambiguous process and seek to convince our readers—especially prospective college students and their parents—that this messy, complicated, ambiguous process is, in fact, the point of liberal education.